MISSISSIPPI RIVER — Plenty of snow. Moist soil. Full rivers. It's the perfect storm for 2020 flooding.
"We're in the 99 percentile for soil moisture across the state," said Craig Schmidt, a service hydrologist for the National Weather Service in the Twin Cities. "It's the wettest year statewide. It's been the wettest in Wisconsin. All the Midwest states were either the wettest or second wettest on record."
Words like "unprecedented" and "99th percentile" are being used a lot by the people who watch the conditions that can lead to flooding as the spring melt approaches next month.
Patrick Moes, a public affairs specialist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, St. Paul District, said the flow rate along the Upper Mississippi River has been unprecedentedly wet this winter. In early February, he said, the flow rate on the river was measured at about 40,000 cubic feet of water per second. That's nearly three times the average for that time of year, 15,000 cubic feet per second. In fact, the flow rate on the river was more in line with what the Corps normally measures for May or even June.
All this didn't happen overnight, Schmidt said.
"This has been almost unprecedented for how wet we've been for the last couple of falls," he said.
But that wouldn't have been so bad if it weren't for the wettest year on record in 2019. Like Rochester, which set records for snowfall and overall precipitation, most of the state saw record or near-record precipitation in 2019. However, matters were made worse with a wet fall and water saturating the soil right before the freeze, Schmidt said. Because the soil is saturated, the water, whether it melts from the snow or falls from the sky, has nowhere to go but right into the creeks, streams, rivers and lakes of Minnesota.
All Along The Waterfront
For folks living along the Upper Mississippi River, keeping an eye on the river in the spring is a normal activity. And for some, they'll believe the doom and gloom prognostications when they see them.
At Reads Landing Brewing Co. just past the south end of Lake Pepin, longtime resident and employee Laura Lemieux said businesses long the river in Reads Landing used to fear flooding more than they do today. But when the railroad tracks were built between the town and the river, things changed.
"The railroad tracks form a levy," Lemieux said. "If the water ever gets over that, Wabasha will be in deep doo-doo."
That doesn't mean this year won't be bad if things don't go right.
Moes said the Corps will soon add another piece of data to the mix that will help predict where 2020's floods will rank. Starting next week, the Corps' survey teams will start its annual measurement of the snowpack in the watersheds for the St. Croix, Minnesota and other rivers that feed into the Mississippi River.
"They start near the Twin Cities and go counter-clockwise across Wisconsin, Minnesota and North Dakota," Moes said. The team will measure the depth of the snow across the region and the water equivalency – the amount of water within that snow. "That information is shared with the National Weather Service and (U.S. Geological Survey) to better forecast potential spring flooding."
Right now, the early estimates show the snow being slightly above normal, Schmidt said. That wouldn't be a problem if it weren't for the soil. That has the NWS's long range flooding outlook predicting several spots along the Upper Mississippi River will have a better than 50 percent chance of experiencing major flooding this spring. Spots along the river with the worst outlook include Prairie Island, Red Wing (77 percent chance), Wabasha, Winona and La Crescent.
The Finances Of Flooding
The solution for this spring, Schmidt said, is the same solution that saved towns along the Mississippi River in 2019, melting snow during the day followed by freezing overnight temperatures that let out just a little bit of water each day. That, and keeping the rain and snowfall to a minimum through the end of May.
"Once we start the melt season, we're starting from a higher base level," Schmidt said. "You have less room to fill than you would normally."
That has some county and state officials worried.
In Wabasha County, the county's emergency management department Tweeted Wednesday, "It is very likely that Wabasha County could see flooding this spring. It would be wise to purchase flood insurance. Remember there is a 30-day waiting period, so do it now before it's too late."
Tuesday in St. Paul, Gov. Tim Walz requested $30 million be added to the state disaster relief fund for 2020 in anticipation of spring flooding across the state, according to a Forum News Service story. That fund was ravaged by 2019 flooding and is running dry heading into 2020.
Looking forward, Schmidt said he's hoping for that perfect spring – no rain March through May, and a slow melt – then a summer that isn't looking to set any rainfall records.
"Something in terms of a normal precipitation year would be wonderful," he said. "We need time for the water to just settle out a little bit. "